Crumpled on the ground behind an unforgiving stack of cordwood where he parted company with his horse, J. Michael Plumb didn't look like a great bet to be named to his eighth Olympic squad. After making it halfway around the cross-country course at last October's Fair Hill (Md.) Three-Day Event, the 51-year-old rider was on his way to the hospital instead of the finish line. But no one doubted that he would be back.
The durable third-generation horseman has been riding for the U.S. equestrian team (USET) since the Eisenhower Administration. Over five decades, from the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago to the 1990 World Equestrian Games in Stockholm, few major championships have lacked Plumb's compelling presence. He's a remarkable stayer, even in a sport in which competitors tend to hang on for years.
Competing in Barcelona would give Plumb the U.S. record for selection to the most Olympic teams. He was chosen for every Olympic squad from 1960 through 1984, though he didn't participate in 1980 because of the Moscow Games boycott, and he was injured in 1988.
Such achievements don't impress the man who owns them. "I don't keep track of the trophies," says Plumb.
Though he is a legend in his sport, he doesn't expect the recognition in this country that his counterparts abroad enjoy. Eventing, a sort of equine triathlon, is a real crowd-pleaser in Britain, for example, where it can draw more than 100,000 spectators for such famous fixtures as Badminton and Burghley.
Three-day eventing was devised by the military and is based on battlefield requirements. It demonstrates that a cavalry horse has the bravery and endurance to get a message cross-country, over all sorts of obstacles. The animal also has to be tractable enough to show obedience on the parade field and have the ability to bounce back after the most grueling test.
Eventing begins sedately, with dressage in a small arena. The horse must be in perfect control as it walks, trots and canters in specified patterns. Many eventers who love the rough-and-tumble aspects of their sport simply put up with the quiet precision of dressage. Not Plumb. "You can't jump and gallop every day," he points out.
The second day is the endurance phase, the heart of eventing and the segment that counts the most when the scores are totaled. Eventers leave their scarlet jackets and velvet hunt caps in the closet, dressing instead for survival in color-coordinated rugby-style shirts and crash helmets. Horses wear boots, and the bandages on their elegant, long legs are incongruously covered with grease to help them slide over the jumps.
Cross-country is the focal point of endurance and Plumb's favorite phase. After doing 16-20 kilometers of roads and tracks at a brisk trot and canter, punctuated by a twirl at high speed over a series of brush-topped steeplechase jumps, the competitors set off on their biggest test.
Against the clock they must take as short a route as is possible over a course of 30 or so cleverly devised cross-country obstacles—dog kennels, a cannon, hay wagons—as they cope with their horses' natural tendency to flee the unfamiliar. The jumps are immovable: They don't come down, the horses do. Injuries to man and beast are an accepted part of the challenge, though proper training goes a long way toward preventing disaster.